Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The dew under the blossoms

"Not very festive" was the complaint I received when I attempted to read a few winter poems by Saigyō aloud to the family over Christmas.  Maybe it was the images of solitary life in lonely huts with all mountain trails cut off, or the bamboo bent under snow, frost-withered flowers, wind blowing over dead reeds...  I was trying to interest them in Burton Watson's beautiful translations, published twenty-five years ago by the Columbia University Press.  Saigyō (1118 - 1190) lived through tumultuous times at the end of the Heian dynasty and also through stylistic changes in court poetry which saw greater prominence given to nature description with a sabi aesthetic.  Watson says, in relation to the poem below, 'perhaps he and his fellow poets felt that the very drabness of such scenes, their dim half-light and autumnal sadness, more aptly reflected the age of social decline in which they lived than could any brighter and cheerier landscape.'
kokoro naki mi ni mo aware wa shirarekeri shigi tatsu sawa no aki no yūgure
Even a person free of passion
would be moved
to sadness:
autumn evening
in a marsh where snipe fly up.
[Quoted on Wikipedia - the translation is Burton Watson's.]

From the perspective of landscape writing what is most interesting about Saigyō are the poems that are almost pure description and those which record his extensive travels.  The journeys he made in northern Japan were an influence on Basho, as I've mentioned here before, and this ideal of life spent as a wandering Buddhist poet was later taken up by the Beat Movement.  Within half a century of Saigyō's death, local traditions had sprung up around places he apparently visited.  In her autobiography (c. 1313), Lady Nijō mentions being inspired at the age of nine by reading one of his poems, on a mountain stream and scattering cherry blossoms:
'I had envied Saigyō's life ever since, and although I could never endure a life of ascetic hardship, I wished that I could at least renounce this life and wander wherever my feet might lead me, learning to empathise with the dew under the blossoms and to express the resentment of scattering autumn leaves, and make out of this a records of my travels that might live on after my death.'    
This quotation is taken from Gustav Heldt's introduction to his translation of the Saigyo Monogatari (see Monumenta Nipponica, Winter 1997).  This work is a compilation of stories about the poet's life which emphasised his travels around Japan and there are various texts, the earliest dating back to the thirteenth century.  It includes the famous poem I quote above, on snipe rising from a marsh in autumn.  At that point Saigyō has just passed the plain of Togamigahara where 'from out of the drifts of mist covering the field, the wind carried the cries of a deer.'  Afterwards, 'since he had no particular destination in mind, he followed where the moonlight led him...'  At the end of the Saigyo Monogatari, the poet looks back on his life, fifty years spend wandering 'through the provinces, forsaking everything for the frugal life of a monk living in mountains and forests.'  He dies surrounded by cherry blossoms and makes his final journey to the Pure Land.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Emergent landscapes

Earlier this month we were at Tate Modern for Rob St John's participatory installation Emergent Landscapes. There were two elements to this: painting clay tiles with a solution containing lichen spores, and speaking into an old gramophone horn as a contribute to a collective Tate soundscape.  The tiles will form a cairn at Hooke Park, a woodland in Dorset owned by the Architectural Association, and the tape of sounds will be buried inside it.  Rob might not be the best person to give a mixtape to - I mentioned here last year a concert involving tapes that had been 'soaked in tubs of polluted Lea river water – duckweed, decaying leaves, oil slicks and all – for a month.'  We last encountered him en famille nearly three years ago at Ambika P3 when the kids had a go at wind drawing.  On this occasion they enjoyed painting with lichen (a mixture resembling watery pesto) and adding rude noises to the soundscape, which I can only hope time and the weather will transform into something more beautiful.

Image from Rob St John's Emergent Landscapes site

Painting actual shapes 'with lichen' felt rather odd, distantly related to topiary or making pictures out of bedding plants.  The beautiful abstract patterns it makes on stone (like the Temple of Apollo at Stourhead) are beyond our control.  The way lichen colonised those road signs, symbols of the way way we order and structure landscape, in Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Ruins, was a reminder that nothing can stand outside time.  As I mentioned here recently, Musō Soseki's fourteenth century garden Saihō-ji eventually became famous for its mosses after a period when it fell into disrepair.  Painting my tile, I wondered whether the lichen would ever really grow (particularly if it was placed somewhere in the middle of the cairn), and if the sculpture would remain in the landscape long enough to evolve into something new, and also whether people would still know what it was in decades to come.  I thought about sculpture parks filling up and future curators only retaining works by the most famous artists; perhaps though, as with cemeteries, it will be the mixture of the remembered and forgotten that our descendents will value.

The dates on graves can be used as convenient information for studying the proliferation of lichen species.  Lichen has also been used to try to date ancient petroglyphs.  Rob mentioned reading about some Australian rock art that now actually only exists as lichen, where the ancient organic pigment has slowly been colonised.  I liked this story because we normally think of cave paintings as threatened by mould and lichen, especially once exposed to visitors.  This came up during a gallery talk with literary geographer Amy Cutler, in which there was lots to say about time and landscape, relational aesthetics and the way this work is connected with the new architecture at Tate Modern.  They could have spent a long time on the fascinating topic of cairns.  Rob referred to the problem of 'ego cairns', built by visitors to national parks which can add to problems of erosion.  The cairn we were contributing to is not designed to blend naturally into the woods - the intention is to embed within it, in addition to the reel of tape, some red perspex tiles.  This was a reminder of the difficulties in deciding how low-impact environmental art needs to be and whether it has to acknowledge the artificial in order to seem authentic.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Downland Index

A Downland Index is 'a hundred successive slow runs on the chalk downs above Brighton, each written up in a hundred words.'  These hundred short texts are themselves collections of fragmentary moments - thoughts, fleeting impressions, overheard conversations - written up after runs made from the author's home over the course of a year.  I have mentioned Angus Carlyle here before in connection with the book he co-edited on sound art, In the Field (he has what sounds like possibly the best job in Britain - Professor of Sound and Landscape at the University of Arts in London).  The texts in A Downland Index do not read like soundwalks (or soundruns) and the word 'sound' doesn't actually appear in the book's detailed index (unlike 'smell').  Nor are these circuits through space like field recordings where a stationary microphone patiently captures sound over a period of time.  Nevertheless, over the course of the book you get a composite impression from snatches of sound: the snap of a branch, the rain on leaves and branches, yelping dogs, the electric pulsing of crickets, the grating of a car's gears, a crying child, the sounds of starlings on a radio mast.

I'll quote here an example of one particular run: from 14 August (as a contrast to the cold winter's day on which I'm writing this).  There are no sounds here - the hundred-word constraint means that in many cases we have to imagine the soundscapes Angus runs through.  This text conveys time passing over the landscape, the gaze registering a detail and then shifting to a panoramic view, and the bodily pain of running over flints in the heat of summer.
The corn swayed from the two fields on either side, stalks shorter than they were twelve months ago and duller in a light that has closed over again after the brief brightness that pricked my neck with heat.  Running left for the first time from the gate weighed shut by a log suspended on frayed blue 12-ply farm twine, the spot-lit sea to the south, a plain checkered by field, hedge and settlements to the north.  The ridge rises tough and falls tougher, all my weight to the top of my knees, flints stabbing my soles, feeling my heart throb.
On one muddy November run Angus observes a deflated once-pink helium balloon in a sycamore tree, 'shaped like two halves of a lung'.  What surprised me most in reading these texts was the way the landscape sometimes resembles the litter-strewn edgelands painted by George Shaw, which I referred to here recently.  Having moved away from Brighton twenty-five years ago, I picture its borders as neatly planned post-war housing developments giving onto empty grass slopes and chalk tracks that lead you up onto the Downs.  This is not the impression you get from A Downland Index.  In an afterword Angus describes running past a debris of plastic bottles, frayed rope, pallets, hubcaps and cigarette butts which is 'densest at the city's margins'.  It still sounds strange to read Brighton referred to as a city (an official designation it received in 2001) - a reminder that the town I grew up in no longer really exists.  And perhaps the edge of the Downs was never as immaculate as it is in my imagination.  

When I was given a copy of A Downland Index by its publisher Colin Sackett, I was interested to see how this familiar landscape would come over, but unsure if I would like the central concept.  There is nothing more likely to deflate the mood of a Downland walk than having a runner suddenly pound past you.  I also find myself alienated by landscape writing predicated on some form of physical prowess (in Ecology Without Nature Timothy Morton has questioned the 'hale-and-hearty' ethics of environmental writing, some of which, he says, is increasingly 'keen to embrace other species, but not always so interested in exploring the environments of 'disabled' members of the human species.')  I needn't have worried though, because A Downland Index is full of self deprecation - the self doubt the tiredness, the ironic cheers received from passers by.  On one occasion a water bladder bursts and drenches his shorts and a schoolboy shouts "My god he's pissed himself!"  These were 'slow runs' in which speed and distance covered were not what mattered.  Running may prevent deep engagement with a particular place but it nevertheless allows for reflection on something glimpsed back along the path.  The resulting texts, like Imagist poems, focus on particular moments and leave the reader to imagine the rest.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Topographia Germaniae

We had a family DVD viewing this weekend: Karel Zeman's Bláznova kronika (A Jester's Tale), a 1964 Czech film about a peasant caught up in the Thirty Years War.  Philip French described it in The Guardian as an 'exquisite black-and-white anti-war comedy' and particularly admired the way 'live action and animation are integrated with wit and elegance into a magical, fantastical world where the winds of change, represented by an animated old soldier puffing away in the heavens, dictate the arbitrary course of history.'  The story itself has some of the charm of an old German novella, with an irrepressible and innocent hero Petr - seen in the images above near the end of the film with Lenka, the pretty country girl he meets on his travels. 

Matthäus Merian, Frankfurt am Main, 1646

The film's visual style was inspired by the 17th-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian.  In many scenes it is as if the characters have been able to step into the slightly surreal landscapes and interiors he illustrated.  These engravings are part way between maps and landscape drawings and their magical quality is a result of the way they strain after a kind of ideal realism, picturing the world laid out neatly from an imaginary bird's eye perspectives.  Merian's engravings eventually covered a large part of central Europe: the first volume of his Topographia Germaniae, on Switzerland, appeared in 1642 and the last, on Burgundy, was published twelve years later.  I have been imagining what it would be like to see all these views combined with black and white photography to create a seventeenth century version of Google Earth, in the style of Karel Zeman. And wondering too whether our own topographic art forms will be found as charming in four hundred years time.

Friday, December 09, 2016

A Gentle Collapsing

Last weekend we went to the Victoria Miro gallery to see After You Left, an exhibition of work by Alex Hartley.   The rooms contain images of modernist domestic architecture photographed around Los Angeles, ghostly and indistinct through misty layers of perspex, and also some large photographs of jungle scenery exhibited alongside what appear to be fragments of ruined buildings.  These connect with the centrepiece of the exhibition, A Gentle Collapsing II
'Resembling an International Style domestic building apparently abandoned to the elements, the major architectural intervention A Gentle Collapsing II transforms the gallery’s waterside garden into a scene of poetic dereliction and decay.  Built on the canal bank and into the water itself, the work encapsulates classic modernist tropes – the clean lines and horizontality of Bauhaus architecture as exported to the US by Mies van der Rohe in the 1930s and later exemplified by Philip Johnson and Richard Neutra, amongst others. Yet the structure and what it appears to portray – a home vacated without explanation, open to the elements, its white rendered walls peppered with black mould rising from the waterline – stands in stark contrast to images of domestic architecture and attendant aspirational lifestyles from the period.'
An installation of this kind is a landscape that you need to frame yourself by standing in the right place and focusing on one part of the visual field.  The photograph below doesn't really show the artwork; it's an image of my son standing on a walkway, with buildings in the background and a section of the installation visible in the middle distance.  This installation resembles painting, sculpture and set design without being any of these things.  In terms of the classification Rosalind Krauss introduced in her essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, A Gentle Collapsing II could be in the group that is both landscape and architecture. 

When your gaze takes in the wider built environment around the gallery you are reminded of all the new constructions - future ruins - rising in the nearby streets (these are referred to in a recent article about the transformation of Old Street, 'The slow death of Silicon Roundabout').  For me, the installation's artificial ruin didn't necessarily imply a modernist house - it might equally well have been part of an abandoned airfield, hospital or prison camp.  The Ballardian atmosphere and London setting inevitably brought to mind The Drowned World.  Two days after our visit a water main burst in Islington, flooding the streets to the north of the gallery and causing a not-so-gentle collapsing of the public transport system.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Arcadian Landscape with Resting Shepherds and Animals

 Adriaen van de Velde, Arcadian Landscape with Resting Shepherds and Animals, 1664
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I feel in need of a little escapism at the moment, so I went down to Dulwich to look round the exhibition Adriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape.  His drawings and paintings are so detailed that you feel you could disappear into them, although quite where you would then be I am not sure: a landscape that isn't quite Holland or Italy.  His pastoral scenes are bathed in warm Mediterranean sunlight but their animals, shepherdesses and herdsmen look as if they are enjoying unusually fine weather, surrounded by verdant trees under high Dutch skies.  The exhibition shows how carefully composed these landscapes were, with rough ideas sketched in the open air and detailed preparatory drawings done back in the studio.  However, Van de Velde also painted recognisable views, including several of the beach at Scheveningen.  I always think Scheveningen looks like quite an unprepossessing place in old paintings, but the sheer concentration of artists working nearby turned it into something more significant (culminating in 1881 in the Mesdag Panorama - see my earlier post on this). In the video clip embedded below the curator, Bart Cornelis, talks about these Scheveningen paintings in more detail, commenting in particular on their figures.

Adriaen van de Velde, The Beach at Scheveningen, 1658
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have reported here several times on exhibitions whose curators make much of changing tastes, particularly the rediscovery of previously undervalued painters (for example Peder Balke or Francis Towne).  In the case of Van de Velde, the tone is more of surprise that these charming but hardly spectacular paintings were so highly valued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Among collectors there was a particular desire for Van de Velde's rare 'coloured drawings', unusual sketches done painstakingly with the end of a brush in muted shades.  In 1833 the Teylers Museum paid a huge sum, 1730 guilders, for one of these, Landscape with livestock crossing a river.  As you can see below, there are parts of it like the foreground reeds that have the delicacy of a Chinese ink painting. It could be said that the smaller the works, the more impressive Van de Velde is -  a couple of larger paintings in the final room are not very appealing.  I was particularly taken with one small painting that is said to look surprisingly modern, Figures in a Deer Park, from the 1660s.  It is hard to convey just how beautiful these trees are - realistic and poetic at the same time - a little reminiscent of Corot.  Looking at it I found myself thinking how pleasant it would be to escape 2016 with its relentlessly bad news headlines and wander instead into this tranquil scene.
Adriaen van de Velde, Landscape with livestock crossing a river, 1666
Teylers Museum, Haarlem
Source: Art History News

Adriaen van de Velde, Figures in a Deer Park, c.1665
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection
Source: Art Daily 

Friday, December 02, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

Here's an extract from Evelyn McDonnell's interview in the LA Review of Books with Paul Beatty, about the novel that has just won the Booker Prize
'The Sellout is set in an inner-city rural neighborhood called Dickens. Yes, that’s right, an inner-city rural hood. There are rodeos, ranches, and orchards amongst the donut shops, and shootouts. The narrator is a farmer who nurtures exotic fruits, along with killer weed. Call The Sellout a ghetto pastoral.
Or don’t.
“I try not to use that word at all,” Beatty says when asked if he cast The Sellout in the great literary tradition of the pastoral. “That was one of the hardest things about the book, trying to make that neighborhood feel real and a little bit fantastical at the same time; that was so hard to do.”
Beatty mixes the factual and the fanciful. The town name is made up (sly nods to the actual founder of Compton, Griffith Dickenson Compton, and to the father of social realist novels, Charles Dickens), and the setting may sound surreal, but in fact, Dickens is based on an actual Los Angeles area: Richland Farms, straight inside Compton. Yes, in the area made famous by Niggaz With Attitude and Kendrick Lamar — the town known worldwide as the home of gangs and gangsta rap — there are horses, goats, corn, and chickens. There really is a rodeo in Compton. Paul didn’t make that up.'
It is hard to read The Sellout without getting interested in where truth ends and fiction begins.  I found myself trying to get a clearer picture of Richland Farms via Google Earth - it's hard to detect any actual agriculture going on although maybe I just haven't looked down the right streets.  You don't need much space for the kind of city farms we have near where I'm writing this in London, at the equally bucolic sounding Holloway and Bethnal Green.  But it has to be said that even in the fictional version of Compton, it is only the novel's central character who maintains an actual working farm.  Whilst his neighbours have largely given up, he still rides a horse and has vegetable plots, fields that rotate from wheat to rice paddy, vines, cotton (symbolic, unpicked), unusually-shaped melons and satsumas so succulent 'they damn near peel themselves'.  At one point he recalls teenage years reading aloud from Kafka's Amerika with his girlfriend and there is something of that novel's surreal not-fully-urban version of an American city in the idea of Dickens.

A Google Earth view in the Richland Farms district of Compton

The Sellout may not be a pastoral but it is a book about place and the way districts change: the decline of Dickens from a prosperous independent city to a rundown district of LA is an echo of Compton, a once-desirable location where George and Barbara Bush lived in the late 1940s.  Critics have said that the novel resembles a set of comic routines and one of the best involves the idea of a kind of dating bureau for matching up 'sister cities' (the joke works less well with the British version 'twin towns').  Dickens is offered three possibilities: Juárez, the most violent city in the world, Kinshasa and Chernobyl.  But it is the disappearance of Dickens as a separate entity that hurts the novel's hero most, and his first protest against this is to paint and erect his own road sign.  Pleased with his handiwork, he feels 'like Michelangelo staring at the Sistine Chapel after four years of hard labor, like Banksy after spending six days searching the Internet for ideas to steal and three minutes of sidewalk vandalism to execute them.'  His increasingly outrageous local interventions as the novel progresses end with a trial on charges of reintroducing slavery and segregation.  Back at home, waiting for the verdict, he is watching the local weather on TV when he notices that it includes the word 'Dickens'.  He has literally managed to put his city back on the map.